I grew up with a temper. Mostly I kept it under wraps. As an adult, I learned to use anger with control, to stand up for myself, to notice my feelings, to be assertive. But still, sometimes it got the better of me. Sometimes it still does. And when it does, I say the worst things.
Once, in Oxford, I was driving home from teaching a class. That was my first mistake – there’s a reason people cycle in Oxford. Parking is stupid and the road I had to drive home on – the Botley Road – has been undergoing road works since 1995. When I visited last year, the same road crew were there, hammering bits of crap into the road.
But on this day, in the heady first decade of the road works, I was heavily pregnant and I’d had to get off my bike and into my car. I was exhausted – that comes with pregnancy – and I think I’d had a bad teaching day. Not to make excuses, just giving context. And as I drove along the road, in my little white Ford Fiesta, a rock from the road works flew up and smashed down onto the bonnet of my car. I hesitated for a nanosecond and then I pulled over to the side of the road, huffed my way out of the car and checked the whacking great dint now in the bonnet.
Before I go on with this story, I need to tell you that I have never spoken about it in public and I can feel, as I write, a terrible giddy shame washing over me. I don’t come out of this well.
Deep breath. Right. So, tired and emotional and very, very round, I waddled up to the guy operating the machinery which had spat the rock onto the car. I started out ever so rational. “Hi.” (Nothing offensive there, right? Don’t worry, it gets worse). “Your machine spat a rock onto my car. I think I should get the insurer’s details, so that I can claim the repair.”
The guy was grey-haired, stubble-faced, and had a gut quite a lot rounder than mine. He was, in medical terms, almost certainly morbidly obese. This becomes important later on. He glanced down at me, and said, “It didn’t touch your fucking car.”
Thrown – I was being so courteous, why was he not co-operating? – I pointed to the dint. “No, it did, look. There’s a dent there. It came from the rock.” Helpfully, I then pointed to the machine and added, “The rock came from the machine.” The road worker looked down at the car, then at me and said, “That dent were already there.”
This was the point that I could feel the swirl of hormones and anger starting to build. I was the hulk in a slightly stained black Monsoon maxi dress two sizes too large. I was being reasonable. Why was he being such an arse? How could he not understand what I was trying to say? I tried again: “I can’t afford to repair it. Your machine did it. I won’t get you in trouble, I just want to get it fixed.”
He didn’t even look at me this time. “You can’t get me in trouble. Don’t be so fucking stupid.”
I’d lived in Britain for a long time by then, so I said, “I’m sorry, I -”
And that’s when he interrupted me. “Just fuck off, all right, you stupid cow. Fuck off.”
Powerlessness often gives way to rage. And rage, although forceful and sometimes useful, lacks control. It veers around like a balloon, farting air and consequence, while anger drives to its target like an arrow. I was enraged. And in my rage, my balloon-like anger farted around, looking for a target.
I opened my mouth to say: You’re just angry because you think I’ve got a better life than you. And I FUCKING WELL HAVE. But I didn’t say that. Oh, no. Though, as it turned out, that would have been better. Part of my brain, seeing the thought-bubble of classist insult about to burst out of my mouth, snapped in, hero-like, sliding to the forefront with an alternate phrase. And what came out was this: “No YOU fuck off, you great fat fuck. And go on a DIET for god’s sake. You’re disgusting.”
And then I huffed my way back to my car and squeezed myself back in, looking as lithe and elegant as a sick wombat, and drove home shaking with disgust at myself.
I’d spent my late teens and early twenties – like, oh, quite a lot of women – battling eating disorders. Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue was handed to me in a paper bag and it changed the way I thought about my body. I’d come to accept all body types. I was anti-body shaming.
And yet, a stroke of unrestrained rage, and that was the first place I went to.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the way my own insult made me feel about myself. The guy was an arse – but his size didn’t make him an arse, his personality did. Or maybe, like me, he was having a really bad day.
Anyway, all of this comes back to me now because this week a comedian at the Melbourne Comedy Festival made a joke that went something like this:
‘So you know how gay people can make jokes about being gay, and black people can make jokes about being
black, well I can make jokes about rape.’
A woman in the audience, apparently already tired of the festival guests trotting out jokes about domestic violence, slid off her chair and onto the floor in a silent protest. At this stage, according to reports, the comedian – gripped by what I can only assume was the kind of balloon-farting rage that I experienced that day in Oxford – walked over to her and said, “Good on you for taking a stand, but you’re a piece of shit and I hope you die.” And then ended his show.
I should say here that I once had a brief flirtation with stand up comedy. I had co-written and performed in a show at the Edinburgh Festival with the very gifted comic Jo Enright, and our director thought we should perform excerpts at the Bear Pit, a venue notorious for its harsh audiences. Let’s just say that from the moment we walked on stage in our Edwardian wedding dresses, we knew it wasn’t going to go well. At the worst moment, I started quacking like a duck. No, I don’t know why. But I do know that if I’d been able to think of one clever thing to say to the loud booing people, I would have. If I’d been able to think of one hateful, shouty, angry thing, I would have. But, as I said, all I could think of was quacking.
My point is that stand up is stressful. It’s terrifying. The great people (like Jo Enright, actually) make it look easy. They manage hecklers with aplomb, because they practice and craft and rehearse. Dying on stage is like pooing your pants at an interview. It’s mortifying. If I’d been able to blame my stage death on someone, I’d have gone for them. I’d have been enraged instead of merely shamed.
In rage, we have no control. I have no doubt that the comedian in question is feeling pretty bad about himself right now. I’m almost certain he has experienced at least one moment of ‘I wish I hadn’t said that’ shame. In a public forum, he was brought up short by the realisation that not everyone finds his rape joke funny. I don’t know if it’s funny. I didn’t hear it. What I’m interested in is his response to the woman’s lack of co-operation. Shamed and enraged, he lost control. Rage got the better of him and he told her he wished she would die.
I’m not going to absolve him, and I’m not going to absolve myself. My response to the arse in Oxford was shameful and revealed something about my values that I hadn’t acknowledged. Something in me that was still broken. You’re disgusting. Really, I wonder if I was talking to myself in the voice of the fat-shamed teenager that I’d once been.
In the case of this male comic, his shame should lead him to the same reflection. Not ‘when is a rape joke funny?’ but: why, when faced with the disapproval of a woman, is your first response one of violence (I hope you die)?
These words come out of our mouths in rage; we don’t think we mean them. But, somewhere, deep inside, we do. And before absolution comes repentance. Before repentance, comes questioning. Why did I say that? What did I mean?
I hope you die. In classical terms, it’s a curse; one step away from a threat. A death wish directed at a woman. You don’t have to dig too far too ask yourself the most important question: what can I do to make it better?
(And for an example of a comedian being funny about this territory, try Hannah Gadsby.
And to counter every rape joke you’ve heard, there’s always Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke.)
So, my correspondence with the darling ruffians over at LRB has continued. They seem puzzled as to how to find the lady writers, and bemusedly wrote that “Men vastly outnumber women among writers proposing pieces”.
Oooh, I said – so you don’t commission the pieces? You wait for them to come to you?
“Just to clarify, the vast majority of pieces that we carry are commissioned by the editors. I mentioned the proportions by gender among the unsolicited contributions only as evidence that more men than women actively seek to be published in journals such as ours”
In a conciliatory spirit, they said that perhaps some ‘positive discrimination’ might be called for.
So I sent this:
If the editors are commissioning the reviews you don’t need positive discrimination. You just need the editors to approach women. Below is a very incomplete list of eminent, established writers and academics, one or two of whom would, I am sure, be very happy to write for LRB and most of whom outrank or equal most contributors you’ve had. For the record, that list was drawn together from a five minute conversation, with very little intellectual effort involved.
By the way, we’ve just had a cursory glance at the current edition of New Writing, which is also drawing on writers and literary academics in the UK. There are six female contributors, six male and one of unknown gender. Paul, I want to applaud the space that the LRB inhabits; I want to celebrate the continuing insistence on giving serious literature serious attention. To produce a high quality literary journal is a major achievement. But it is no longer appropriate to continue positive discrimination in favour of men. I hope that you will have the courage to shift the template of the LRB…
I would suggest that as a start, an all female issue would be a bold statement of intent, effectively a statement on your willingness to address the issues raised in the recent studies.
The list follows. Any other suggestions for the LRB?
Some recent correspondence on the gender balance of the London Review of Books.
Dear Nicholas and Subscription team
Thanks for your recent letter expressing your concern for me in the form of a suggestion that I might have forgotten to renew my subscription.
I had planned a simple, quiet lapse, but as you have raised the question, let me assure you that I have not forgotten to renew.
Indeed, I would dearly love to renew my subscription, however, based on the tedious regularity with which you ignore female writers and female reviewers, I have to assume that my lady-money is quite simply not welcome in the man-cave of LRB.
With each issue my husband and I play the hilarious poker game “Guess the Ladies”, whereby contestants must take a punt on the number of female contributors to the LRB, or reviews of books written by women. The percentages are fascinating. It’s not hard, just open any issue and count the names – 16 men, 4 women, that sort of thing – give it a try, it’s a great game once you get the hang of it. Recently the game has extended to an advanced version whereby we compare your statistics to the Cambridge University Alumni Magazine. We would have assumed the LRB might be a teensy bit less conservative than the Alumni mag (recent features include a piece on old chairs) but, no, you win. And, congratulations – you also win the metaphorical arm wrestle in our household; we both give up. We can no longer tolerate the tedium with which we are able to predict the outcomes of our gender game. We have made the astonishing decision to create a life and an environment in which men and women have equal power, equal status, equal space. This is clearly not a world which the LRB chooses to inhabit.
If at some point you choose to step into the terrifying world of gender equality, do let us know.
Dr Kathryn Heyman
Dear Kathryn Heyman,
Many thanks for taking the time to let us know why you’ve decided to give up on the LRB. We’re very sorry to see you go, but respect your reasons. If you were interested, I’d be glad to discuss with you, perhaps in an email exchange, why it may be that women are underrepresented in the paper. I think they’re complicated; actually, as complicated as it gets. However, there’s no question that despite the distress it causes us that the proportion of women in the paper remains so stubbornly low, the efforts we’ve made to change the situation have been hopelessly unsuccessful. We’ll continue to try – the issue is on our minds constantly – in the hope that eventually you’ll feel ready to consider subscribing again. Best wishes,
PaulLONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS28 Little Russell StreetLondon WC1A 2HN
Firstly, apologies for the mass of appalling typos.
Secondly, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see what on earth you mean: efforts to change the situation? Really, Paul, with respect, it isn’t that hard. I could give you a list – off the top of my head – of scores of eminent established female novelists and non-fiction writers who are not being reviewed. I could give you a similar list of emerging female writers. So, what’s the problem? Are your reviewers allergic to lady-words? Or is your problem finding female reviewers (because only women will review women?)I’m sure you are aware of the facts in the publishing industry: more women write books, more women read books. Your pages are a shocking inverse to the reality.
I’m sorry, but as someone with (I assume) a nodding acquaintance with Aristotle, you know that we only know someone’s intentions through their actions. If this really causes you and your colleagues actual distress, change it. If you are genuine about not knowing how to do this, I am happy to call you and explain how.